How does Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" compare to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Both "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are medieval romances that involve the supernatural, love and marriage, and a final testing of the main character.

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"The Wife of Bath's Tale" and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight share characteristics in common with a genre of romantic literature known as Breton lai. A Breton lai is a short chivalric poem that usually involves courtly love and the supernatural world. While neither the Wife's story nor Gawain ...

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"The Wife of Bath's Tale" and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight share characteristics in common with a genre of romantic literature known as Breton lai. A Breton lai is a short chivalric poem that usually involves courtly love and the supernatural world. While neither the Wife's story nor Gawain are Breton lais proper, they are clearly inspired by such stories.

Firstly, both poems feature the supernatural. The Wife of Bath points out that during the period of her story, the world was still enchanted by fairies. The story involves magical characters such as the old woman who gives the knight the correct answer to the question of what women desire most, then transforms into a beautiful woman on their wedding night when he gives her permission to choose for herself. Gawain also features magical characters in the form of the Green Knight and Morgan le Fay.

Secondly, both stories deal with love and marriage. The moral of the Wife's story is directly about marriage and how much authority a woman should have within such a union. Gawain complicates the question of marital fidelity with the character of Lady Bertilak, who tries to use social decorum (never being rude to one's host) to seduce Gawain.

Lastly, both stories test the main character. Gawain's chastity and courage are both tested by Lord and Lady Bertilak. He passes the chastity test when he refrains from fully submitting to Lady Bertilak's advances, but he proves less than courageous when he takes the enchanted girdle to save his own life. The knight in "The Wife's Tale" fares better: when his hideous new wife gives him the option of having her ugly but faithful or beautiful but unfaithful, he lets her decide, proving that he has to some degree taken her statement about what women want most to heart. Passing the test, the old woman transforms into a wife both beautiful and chaste.

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First, in both tales the power of the women in each story is stressed. Second, in Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale," the Wife of Bath is respected by Chaucer (the narrator and fellow-pilgrim): she has buried five husbands but has succeeded in being a resourceful and respected businesswoman. She is also a woman of faith who has made many pilgrimages, which is also worthy of mention, but has a strong personality as well—witty and funny, she offers "comic relief" to the rest of the pilgrims. It is not surprising that Chaucer (the author) has the Wife of Bath tell a tale that demonstrates the strength of women. (There are only three tales offered by women.)

The Wife of Bath is looking for a new husband. Understandably, her story promotes matrimony; but it also promotes the advantages of being able to look beyond the outward appearance to the "gem" that lies hidden within. (This argument applies specifically to her: she is a "wide" woman, with a "gap-toothed" smile, dressed in brilliant reds—the same color as her face. She might seem a little overwhelming at first.) 

Her story is about a knight in King Arthur's court. One day, he sees a maid in the fields outside the castle gates and rapes her. He is brought before the King and the Queen. Arthur is ready to have him executed, but Guenevere asks Arthur to allow her to decide his punishment. Arthur allows it, and the Queen gives the knight one year to answer this question: "What is it that every woman wants?" Failure to find the answer will forfeit his life. So he travels a year. On the last day, an old hag promises to give him the answer in exchange for a wish. He agrees. The answer is that a woman wants her own way with men, in all things. 

Saved from death, the knight must grant the hag a wish: she wants to marry him. He balks:

...the crone discusses true gentility and charity with the Knight. 

Ashamed, he agrees and they wed, and then she turns into a gorgeous, young woman. She tells him she can be beautiful and unfaithful; or, faithful and ugly. He must choose. He wisely allows her to choose, and she becomes beautiful and faithful.

In Gawain's tale, at Christmas, a green knight enters the castle and gives anyone a chance to cut off his head; but in a year's time, the favor must be returned. Young Gawain thinks it will be an easy contest and takes a swing. The head comes off, but the knight picks it up, reminds Gawain to meet him in a year and leaves. The following winter, Gawain travels to the the Green Chapel. Arriving early, he sees a castle; the host invites him to stay for Christmas.

Gawain notices especially a beautiful woman, the wife of Bertilak...

So the lord hunts each day, while Gawain and Lady Bertilak stay home. Each day, she tests Gawain's honor, trying to seduce him, but he never strays from his code. The host and Gawain share what each received that day, and there is honesty between them. However, when the lady gives Gawain a magic belt to save his life, he hides its existence.

Ultimately, Gawain goes to meet the Green Knight, who spares his life for his honorable behavior—Gawain realizes it is really his host! He is embarrassed for hiding the belt, but Bertilak forgives him his wish to save his life.

In both stories, there is a knight who is tested—needing to be more honorable...this is accomplished in both stories by a wise woman (or two). Chaucer uses Guenevere and a hag with magical powers. With Gawain, it is Bertilak's wife.

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